The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.
Mirror, Mirror is rightfully iconic.
It is a Star Trek episode that spawned sequels on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a prequel on Star Trek: Enterprise. It codified the whole idea of a “mirror universe” in popular culture, to the point where audiences readily accept the idea of an entire world populated with evil (and possibly sexy) counterparts to our characters. Shows as diverse as Doctor Who and South Park have played with the concept. Indeed, “evil alternate universe doppelganger has a goatee” is a recognisable trope.
There is a strange irony to all this. The mirror universe is an absurd concept for a number of reasons, and that absurdity is only heightened when it becomes more and more iconic. Turning the idea into a recognisable television cliché inevitably simplifies it. Although Mirror, Mirror is very camp – in the same way that a lot of classic Star Trek is camp – it is a story that has a lot of interesting and clever things to say. These tend to get sanded off through imitation and repetition. (For example, despite wearing the “evil goatee”, mirror!Spock is “a man of integrity.”)
And yet, behind the striking iconic production design and the admittedly absurd premise, Mirror, Mirror ranks as one of the best and most insightful scripts of classic Star Trek. It represents a cautionary tale and critical examination of some of the show’s core tendencies.
Mirror, Mirror is one of the most memorable episodes of the classic Star Trek show. It has caught on in popular consciousness in a way that only Khan or Shatner’s performance style or Spock the Klingons or maybe the Borg can claim to have done. The “mirror universe” is one of those concepts that almost anybody with a working knowledge of popular culture will recognise. It has been repeated frequently (and often affectionately) since Mirror, Mirror.
The “mirror universe” is one of those concepts that Star Trek occasionally gets credit for inventing. While Mirror, Mirror is certainly the defining example of the trope, it was not quite the first. For example, the “Crime Syndicate of America” from evil “Earth-3” were introduced in the pages of Justice League of America #29, several years before the airing of Mirror, Mirror. It is worth noting that Mirror, Mirror seems to initially play the trope as horror rather than science-fiction, complete with atmospheric thunder clap and rising winds in the teaser.
The idea of an alternate universe was not even new to Star Trek at this point. The show itself had broached the topic of an alternate universe in the much-maligned The Alternative Factor, and Harlan Ellison proposed an alternate Enterprise in early drafts of The City on the Edge of Forever. However, while Mirror, Mirror is not the very first example of an evil alternate universe in popular culture, it is an iconic and defining one.
Part of that is down to the fact that Mirror, Mirror is a superb piece of television. Every part of the production is on fire. Supporting players like George Takei and Nichelle Nichols seem to be happy to given a chance to do something, and the production design is amazing. William Ware Theiss’ costuming on Mirror, Mirror is some of his best work on the show, finally getting a chance to apply his infamous “titillation theory” to William Shatner with an outfit that objectifies the male form. Even the Terran Empire logo is distinctive and effective.
Sometime around Through the Looking Glass, the mirror universe became a bit of a joke. To be fair, even in Mirror, Mirror, the premise walks a tightrope between absurd and terrifying. However, with that third season script, Deep Space Nine confirmed that the mirror universe was little more than a pulpy action adventure playground. In In a Mirror, Darkly, the mirror universe became one more piece of classic Star Trek iconography for Enterprise to affectionately homage and acknowledge.
However, Mirror, Mirror is an episode that has something to say. It is a story with a clear allegorical point, and one which seems quite aware of the franchise’s developing place in popular culture. This isn’t simply an excuse for Shatner to ham it up in his small role as mirror!Kirk or to put Barbara Luna in a see-through dress with a bikini underneath or to put everybody in skimpier outfits with lots of gratuitous gold sashes.
The mirror universe isn’t a stand-in for the Soviet Union or Red China or any sort of foreign enemy. It has been argued that the Terran Empire stands in for communist threats and that imagery evokes “oriental despotism”, but these are rather superficial readings. Instead, it is quite clear that the Terran Empire of the mirror universe is designed to evoke Rome – perhaps the most iconic and recognisable “western” Empire in human history.
Marlana describes herself as “the woman of a Caesar.” The imperial salute is designed to evoke the salute given by gladiators to the Emperor. There is a very Greco-Roman bust visible in mirror!Spock’s quarters, quite clearly replacing the Eastern statues and sculptures that were visible in Amok Time. The device that mirror!Kirk stole to allow him to make his play for command of the Enterprise is named “the Tantalus field”, evoking the figure from Greek mythology. Like Kirk plundered the Tantalus field, Rome appropriated aspects of Greek mythology.
This applies outside Mirror, Mirror. Although not used here, the description of the Empire as “Terran” serves as a hint – the term originates in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. The only time that the word “Terran” is used over the course of the classic Star Trek show, it is by a Romulan – another culture that draws heavily from Roman iconography. Robert Hewitt Wolfe drew on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while writing Crossover. In a deleted scene from In a Mirror, Darkly, mirror!Archer appeals to “the gods.”
This is not the only time that Star Trek has dabbled in Roman iconography. The Romulan Star Empire were transparently space!Romans to the point where they had twin home planets named “Romulus” and “Remus.” Mirror, Mirror very cleverly borrows a few cues from the portrayal of the Romulans in Balance of Terror. The Roman salute is the same one employed by the Romulans. Fred Steiner’s mirror universe music cue is recycled from Balance of Terror.
However, Star Trek would offer an even more overt version of a space-age Roman society in Bread and Circuses, with Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon imaging what a present-day Rome might look like. In both Bread and Circuses and Mirror, Mirror, a Roman Empire that never fell is used as a reflection. In Bread and Circuses, it is a reflection of contemporary America. In Mirror, Mirror, it is a twisted reflection of Starfleet and the Federation.
It is worth noting that other writers have emphasised the Romulan-Empire-as-space-Romans-as-mirror-to-the-Federation. Diane Duane and Peter Morwood’s The Romulan Way hit on this theme quite heavily, as did Ronald D. Moore’s script to Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, which – on top of the Latin title – saw Bashir taking a trip to Romulus simply so he could recognise the Federation as “a twenty-fourth century Rome.” Cutting irony!
The “United States as a modern day Roman Empire” comparison is practically a cliché. It is fairly well-worn at this point, and has been in use for decades, applied to any number of contexts and situations. There is a legitimate debate to be had about the merits (if any) of the comparison, as Vaclav Smil notes in the preface to Why America Is Not a New Rome:
Much of this could be dismissed as just a fashionable wave of insufficiently informed commentating, irrelevant private scribbling, or superficial comparisons that pick out as singularly revealing some commonalities shared by virtually all complex societies, juxtapose a few analogical habits and preferences, and conclude that they imply identical long-term outcomes. But it is undeniable that the comparison does resonate for a variety of reasons and hence its validity (or lack of it) deserves a closer critical look.
The validity of the comparison is somewhat questionable, but the comparison itself endures. The Roman Empire is such a recognisable piece of Western iconography that the comparison to the current defining Western political power cannot help but suggest itself. (After all, it would be just as easy to suggest the British Empire was “a nineteenth century Rome”, and so on.)
Looking at Mirror, Mirror, it is very tempting to read the Terran Empire as a straight-up inversion of the Federation – an example of the type of fascist and oppressive political entity that the Federation could never be. A fascist Federation? The thought scarcely bears thinking about. One might as well imagine a fascist version of the United States of America. There is something knee-jerk about this reaction, like the oft-cited protest that “it can’t happen here.”
However, the spectre of fascism looms large in the history of various major Western democracies. Sinclair Lewis imagined a fascist United States in It Can’t Happen Here, with a totalitarian politician inspired by Huey Long. In 1938, the German American Bund was able to drum up enough support to host a Nazi rally in Madison Square Gardens, an event that was unnerving enough to work its way into the teaser of Stormfront, Part II.
The thought of a fascist government taking hold of America is particularly disturbing based on the country’s long and proud history of liberal democracy. As Bertram Gross reflects in Friendly Fascism:
The thought that some form of new fascism might possibly – or even probably – emerge in America is more than unpleasant. For many people in other countries, it is profoundly disturbing; for Americans, it is a source of stabbing anguish. For those who still see America as a source of inspiration or leadership, it would mean the destruction of the last best hope on Earth.
However unsettling confronting this possibility might be, it is necessary. As Karl Popper wrote in his autobiography Unended Quest, “‘It cannot happen here’ is always wrong: a dictatorship can happen anywhere.”
Despite what some of the follow-ups or homages to the episode might suggest, Mirror, Mirror is not a universe of opposites. The Halkan Council is peace-like in both universes. As he prepares to make the trip home, Kirk assures mirror!Spock that he is “a man of integrity in both universes.” There are universal constants. There are absolutes that cannot change. As comforting as it might be to believe that the Terran Empire is a grotesque inversion of everything the Federation stands for, the Empire instead runs in parallel, right alongside it.
The episode stresses the strange similarities between the two worlds. The implication is that the universal constants are no different here, only the people themselves. Inspecting his sickbay, McCoy is aghast. “Everything’s all messed up and changed around, out of place,” he muses. “No, not everything. That spot, I spilt acid there a year ago.” Scott reports that technologically the differences are “mostly variations in instrumentation.” Charting the ship’s position, he reflects, “Everything’s exactly where it should be, except us.”
Things are not as radically different as we might think. Everything moves in tandem – the two universes are close enough that actions and objects do move in synch across the universes. The mirror!Enterprise visits the mirror!Halkans at the same time that the Enterprise visits the Halkans. Kirk and mirror!Kirk beam up at the exact same time, through the exact same ion storm. Although it strains credibility, it makes a solid thematic point reinforced by the title. This is not a strange different universe, it is a reflection or shadow stalking our crew.
It is worth noting that Kirk’s glimpse into the life of mirror!Kirk cannot help but evoke Khan Noonien Singh from Space Seed. Like Khan, mirror!Kirk is aggressive and ambitious and violent. Like Khan, mirror!Kirk has claimed a member of the Enterprise crew as his consort. Khan was a sinister counterpart to Kirk – an alpha male with a desire to exert his will upon the universe. Indeed, Khan’s seduction of Marla McGivers is a play right out of the Kirk handbook.
With mirror!Spock and the Halkan Council, Mirror, Mirror suggests that not everything changes in the gap between the universes. So, what is the difference? The implication is simply that humanity’s history played out a little bit different. Tharn talks proudly of his people’s “history of total peace”, speaking about how even the loss of one life would be a betrayal of that history. It seems that the Halkan Council has lived entirely at peace for all of their history. They have never killed or waged war.
In contrast, humanity has waged war. “We have shown the council historical proof that our missions are peaceful,” Kirk insists in the episode’s teaser. However, there has always been an edge to those missions. The Federation, after all, is built from the legacy of a traumatic twentieth and twenty-first century, based on both world history and franchise continuity. The show is (literally and figuratively) a product of the Second World War. More than that, Star Trek itself has generally been skeptical of Starfleet and the Federation – particularly under Gene L. Coon.
Episodes like A Taste of Armageddon, Arena and Errand of Mercy argue that the Federation is an expansionist and imperialist power. They might come in friendship, but there is a clear sense that the Federation works for its own political advantage. In A Taste of Armageddon, Kirk threatens the planet Eminiar VII with “General Order 24”, an order to destroy all life on the surface of a planet. The fact that Garth of Izar is revealed to have attempted such a thing in Whom the Gods Destroy… confirms that it was not a bluff.
There is a very clear conflict in classic Star Trek around the issue of imperialism. On the one hand, scripts like Errand of Mercy and Arena call the crew out for their attitudes and preconceptions. On the other hand, scripts like Friday’s Child and The Apple seem to support Kirk’s right to impose his own standards and agendas upon less powerful people. Classic Star Trek was alternately horrified and enthralled by the idea of Kirk spreading his doctrine of secular liberal democracy to the stars in furtherance of the Federation’s agenda.
It is worth noting that writer Jeremy Bixby’s original pitch for Mirror, Mirror would like likely have played into that sense of cultural imperialism rather than against it. In that original pitch, Kirk travelled to an alternate universe where a less technologically-advanced Federation was engaged in war with the hostile Tharn Empire. The Federation was losing the war. In the original script, Kirk helps the alternate Federation by giving them hyper-advanced weapon technology.
This original pitch was completely different than the episode that made it to screen. There is something rather disconcerting about Kirk traveling to an alternate universe to teach them better ways of killing things. Even in Yesterday’s Enterprise, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation proposing a war between the Federation and the Klingons, the solution was to go back and prevent the war from starting in the first place.
In a way, perhaps this demonstrates how delicate the writing process was on the classic Star Trek. An episode could enter one end of the writing process with one set of themes and ideas, and emerge out the other side with a diametrically-opposed perspective. It is very hard to piece together one cohesive political or moral perspective from classic Star Trek, and the changes that Mirror, Mirror endured offer a demonstration of how easy it is for ideas and stories to change from one iteration to the next.
It also serves as an example of how much work the production team did on receiving a script or a story pitch – how much the input from producers like Gene Roddenberry, Robert Justman, D.C. Fontana and Gene L. Coon could shape and change writer’s work. Bixby would remain on good terms with the team despite these changes and alterations, contributing several more episodes to the show over the next year-and-a-half.
On the subject of imperialism, it is worth noting that Kirk doesn’t make a conscious effort to impose his own values on the mirror universe. Although Crossover builds on the themes of Mirror, Mirror by holding Kirk to account for his meddling in other cultures, the episode suggests that Kirk has no such agenda. He initially plans to beam back to the Enterprise with his away team, leaving the mirror universe to unfold as it might. This isn’t The Apple where Kirk tries to “fix” a broken society. His influence is not premeditated or even considered.
It is only the last-minute intervention of mirror!Spock in the transporter room that leads Kirk to make his “one man can change the present” pitch in the “two minutes and ten seconds” before he leaves. Had mirror!Spock not arrived, then Kirk and his away team would have left without anybody being the wiser. In a way, this serves to make the revelations in Crossover even more affecting than they might otherwise be. All of that suffering was caused by mirror!Spock’s bad timing.
Mirror, Mirror seems to play out the colonial and imperialist anxieties that weigh quite heavily on classic Star Trek – offering a very clear warning and cautionary tale. It is very much a reminder that “it could happen here”, even when “here” is an idealised version of the twenty-third century. Making the world a better place takes hard work. Maintaining an idealised future is also something that requires great skill and care – it is something that should never be taken for granted.
In a way, it makes perfect sense that Deep Space Nine would be the first Star Trek show to follow up on Mirror, Mirror – indeed, Deep Space Nine arguably has a stronger thematic connection with classic Star Trek than any of the other spin-offs. Crossover aired quite late in the second season of Deep Space Nine, when the show was working through its own issues with wider Star Trek framework in episodes like The Maquis. Mirror, Mirror‘s criticisms of Starfleet seem to recall Sisko’s own frustrations with the institution.
Mirror, Mirror offers a rather cynical suggestion that liberal democracy is always much closer to imperialism and totalitarism and barbarism that it would ever like to concede. “We accept that your Federation is benevolent at present, but the future is always in question,” Tharn warns Kirk. “It was far easier for you as civilised men to behave like barbarians, than it was for them to behave like civilised men,” Spock reflects in the final scene, suggesting that building and maintaining a civilised world takes a lot of effort and refinement.
Although framed as a humourous zinger at the episode’s conclusion, Spock also gets to make another fairly bleak observation. “May I point out that I had an opportunity to observe your counterparts here quite closely,” he states. “They were brutal, savage, unprincipled, uncivilised, treacherous, In every way, splendid examples of homo sapiens, the very flower of humanity.” As with a lot of the best jokes, it is funny (and more than a little sad) because it contains a glimmer of truth.
Mirror, Mirror is pretty much the whole package when it comes to Star Trek. It is exciting and fun, visually appealing, well-acted, charming, pulpy, but also surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced. It is an episode that is alternately absurd and horrific. In a way, it encapsulates everything wonderful about the classic Star Trek series, an episode that demonstrates how the show could be campy and ridiculous while still being smart and considered.
Mirror, Mirror is a fantastic episode and a beautiful piece of television. It remains one of the most iconic – and one of the best – episodes of Star Trek ever produced.
- Friday’s Child
- Who Mourns for Adonais?
- Amok Time
- Supplemental: Spock’s World by Diane Duane
- The Doomsday Machine
- Supplemental: New Visions #3 – Cry Vengeance
- Wolf in the Fold
- The Changeling
- The Apple
- Supplemental: (DC Comics, 1984) #43-45 – The Return of the Serpent!
- Supplemental: (IDW, 2009) #13 – The Red Shirt’s Tale
- Mirror, Mirror
- Supplemental: Deep Space Nine – Crossover
- Supplemental: New Visions #1 – The Mirror, Cracked
- Supplemental: (DC Comics, 1984) #9-16 – New Frontiers (The Mirror Universe Saga)
- Supplemental: Mirror Images
- Supplemental: Mirror Universe – The Sorrows of Empire by David Mack
- Supplemental: (IDW, 2009) #15-16 – Mirrored
- The Deadly Years
- I, Mudd
- The Trouble With Tribbles
- Bread and Circuses
- Journey to Babel
- A Private Little War
- The Gamesters of Triskelion
- The Immunity Syndrome
- A Piece of the Action
- By Any Other Name
- Return to Tomorrow
- Patterns of Force
- The Ultimate Computer
- The Omega Glory
- Assignment: Earth
Filed under: The Original Series | Tagged: alternate universes, colonialism, crossover, empire, goatee, imperialism, in a mirror darkly, kirk, mirror mirror, Roman Empire, romulans, spock, star trek, terran empire |